What if you could stop worrying (or feel more confident, or less stressed) with just a few simple words? That's the premise behind Habit Changers: 81 Game-Changing Mantras to Mindfully Realize Your Goals ($16, amazon.com), a powerful little book filled with one-line mantras meant to help you reprogram your brain.
Inspired by a Tibetan Buddhist mind training practice called Lojong, author and executive coach M.J. Ryan has been using simple slogans with her clients to interrupt the habitual thought processes that hold them back. The mantras work, she writes, because they override the brain's automatic response, "help you become consciously aware of what you're doing—and serve as a reminder of what it is that you want to do."
Below are five of these simple but profound phrases, adapted from Ryan's book Habit Changers. Choose the mantras that resonate most with you, and recite as needed.
To gather courage: “Handshake your fear”
Whether you’re generally anxious or find yourself afraid in particular circumstances—like public speaking or when expressing opinions to important stakeholders at work—fear can be debilitating. Not only can it keep you from realizing your goals, but it can also prevent you from simply enjoying your day to day life. I know because I was ruled by fear for decades—and I’m not alone.
This is an issue many people talk to me about. Part of the problem is that in Western culture fear is something we’re generally taught to ignore or suppress; when we can’t, we get even more overwhelmed.
The Buddhists have a different approach. They suggest you befriend your fear, turn toward it as you would toward someone you loved who was feeling afraid: “Oh, you poor thing, I see you are afraid. You’re not alone. I’m right here with you.”
In saying this you give your fear attention, neither ignoring it nor making more out of it than there is. It sounds backward, but oftentimes, paying attention to a feeling can make it lessen or even disappear. These words can also help you to see that you’re more than your fear. Yes, there is the scared person inside you. But there is also the bold, wise part of you. Getting in touch with that wiser, braver self helps you act from confidence rather than fear—act not out of fear but in spite of it.
To find confidence: "Undistort the distortion"
This is an idea that Sheryl Sandberg wrote about in Lean In ($14, Amazon), and it’s based on the fact that, according to many studies across a wide range of disciplines, women are plagued by much lower self-confidence than men. This unfortunate phenomenon shows up in various ways. For instance, women consistently judge their performance as worse than it actually is, while men judge their performance as better than it is. And when it comes time to apply for a job, women don’t feel qualified enough to apply unless they match 100% of the criteria, while men through their hats into the ring if there is a 50% match.
Even when we understand this phenomenon is social, not personal, it can be very hard to change. In writing about it, Sandberg noted about herself, “I learned over time that while it was hard to shake feelings of self-doubt, I could understand that there was a distortion. … I learned to undistort the distortion.”
The words jumped off the page at me as fodder for a wonderful habit changer. Since then, women I’ve worked with have used it to recognize when they’re doubting themselves and to act in spite of their self-doubt, knowing that if they waited until they felt self-confident, they would wait forever. As one woman who used it to start her own business put it, “It helps me remember by feeling of unworthiness is a lie so I don’t have to listen to it as much.”
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To manage stress: "This is only a paper tiger"
When you’re stressed out about something, it can feel a bit like a ravenous tiger is about to devour you. The problem seems overwhelmingly daunting and you don’t see how you can are possibly going to cope. But there is a way out—recognizing that what you are facing is only a paper tiger, not a real one.
This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a problem, just that it’s not one that threatens your life. Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson created this metaphor to illustrate the fact that the stress response was designed to save you from physical danger—like a tiger chasing you. But your amygdala, which is where the stress response originates, can’t differentiate between a tiger and a traffic jam. So it responds as if a tiger were after you when you’re only stuck in line, experiencing a flight delay, or anticipating an important presentation.
Using this habit changer whenever you are stressed reminds your body/mind you’re not in mortal danger so you can clam down and figure out how to deal with that line, delay, or presentation. “This habit changer has been a life saver,” one stressed-out client said to me recently. “It’s made it possible for me to stop, figure out if there even is a problem, solve it when needed, and then proceed with my day more calmly.”
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To quiet anxiety: “Don’t go in your mind where your body is not”
Do you constantly worry about all the terrible thing that might happen? Many of us torture ourselves with this brand of magical thinking: If I worry now, it will help keep the bad thing away.
Actually all you do is make yourself miserable now as you focus on the prospect of misfortune and the unhappiness you will feel if it occurs, which it usually doesn’t! If you’re a chronic worrier, try this habit changer, which comes courtesy of a client of mine.
I was working with her to stop worrying about all the possible future catastrophes that could befall her and suggested that she say to herself, I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. Soon after that we came to the end of her coaching engagement and she moved on to an overseas work assignment. A couple years later, she called me out of the blue to say how helpful it had been to learn to “not go in her mind where her body is not.” It had completely eliminated her worrying.
I was so delighted with her translation that now I give it to all my worriers. Use it to remind yourself that all worries are in the future and likely will not come to pass. You’re not there yet—it’s all happening in your mind. And if some terrible thing does indeed happen, you can deal with when it arrives.
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To summon strength: "Look how far I’ve come”
This is a strategy long-distance runners use to resist the temptation to give up when they’re tired or in pain. Scientists call it the horizon effect. Rather than focusing on how far they still have to go, they encourage themselves to keep at it based on the progress they’ve already made.
When I have clients with a tendency to focus on their mistakes when they’re learning a new behavior, I give them this habit changer to help them cultivate the resilience to keep at it. Because of the brain’s tendency to be Velcro for the negative and Teflon for the positive, as Rick Hanson describes our inborn negativity bias, when people encounter a minor setback, they often lose sight of the progress they’ve made.
I’ll never forget the client who called me to say she was a “total failure” at managing her anger because she’d stomped down the hall after a meeting. She was ready to give up on her anger-management efforts altogether. I reminded her that it was the first time she’d lost her temper in three months, whereas before it had been a weekly occurrence. Once she adopted this habit changer, it helped her stick to the techniques she’d found useful. Plus it helped her get back on the horse when she messed up, because she was able to see it as just an occasional slip-up rather than a fundamental failure. Use this mantra when you need help sticking to whatever it is you’re’ working on.
Adapted from Habit Changers: 81 Game-Changing Mantras to Mindfully Realize Your Goals by M.J. Ryan, available from Crown Business/Crown Publishing Group.